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Executing innocent people

Studies of the reliability of
the legal system in capital cases

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Quotation indicating that proof of innocence is no defense:

bullet Question asked of the Assistant Attorney General of Texas: "Suppose you have a videotape which conclusively shows the person is innocent, and you have a state which, as a matter of policy or law, simply does not hear new evidence claims, is there a federal constitutional violation?".
bullet Reply: "No, Your Honor, there is not...such an execution would not be violative of the Constitution."

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Can we trust the system?

Various studies have examined whether some inmates on death row awaiting execution are actually innocent:

bullet Equal Justice USA has documented 16 instances where individuals were executed in spite of their probable innocence. 1
bullet Hugo Adam Bedau and Michael L. Radelet found that at least 23 probably innocent people were executed between 1900 and 1987. 2
bullet A subcommittee of Congress reported in 1993 that: "Americans are justifiably concerned about the possibility that an innocent person may be executed."
bullet With the availability of DNA as an accurate diagnostic tool in recent years, over 100 inmates awaiting execution on death row have been proven innocent. Most had been convicted before such testing became available. Of course, none of them were actually executed. According to Amnesty International: "For every six prisoners executed since the reinstatement of the US death penalty, one innocent person was condemned to die and later exonerated. How many equally blameless but less fortunate prisoners still await execution - or have already gone to their deaths - may never be known." It is anyone's guess how many equally blameless but less fortunate prisoners were not exonerated, due to degraded DNA samples, lost evidence, inadequate proof of innocence, etc. They remain on death row awaiting execution. 3

Consider what would have happened if modern-day DNA testing were available 30, 60 or 90 years ago.  The number of prisoners on death row would probably have been significantly smaller if for no other reason than the population then was not as great as it is now. However, the results would probably have been much the same as recent experience: many dozens of inmates would have been proven innocent. But DNA testing was not available in those days. Many of the innocent would have rotted in death row until they were eventually executed.

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Equal Justice USA's promotion of a death penalty moratorium:

Equal Justice USA, a project of the Quixote Center, opposes the death penalty and is promoting a national execution moratorium. In the year 2000, they issued a national report titled: "Reasonable Doubts: Is the U.S. Executing Innocent People? A Preliminary Report of the Grassroots Investigation Project." The report cites 16 potential cases of wrongful executions. Both of the Missouri cases cited elsewhere in this section are included in the report. Author Claudia Whitman said: "I think if I had to list all 16 I would put him [Roberts] first. There was really nothing there to convict him."

The year 2000 report states, in part:

"The report highlights the cases of 16 individuals who were executed by the states of Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, and Virginia in the face of exculpatory evidence and evidence of rights violations. In all of these cases, the state and federal courts had every opportunity to interrupt the process and determine whether the original conviction was wrong, but they failed to do so. These cases are a part of an alarming trend in the administration of justice in the U.S. in which the courts overwhelmingly favor efficiency and rigid procedural rules over justice and constitutional protection. This trend has created a system of arbitrary justice and has left a trail of arbitrary executions in its wake....."

"This report represents only a small number of the actual cases in which people have been executed for crimes they probably did not commit. The project’s research into such cases is ongoing...."

"In each of the 16 cases profiled in this report, there exists compelling evidence that the defendant was convicted of the crime he did not, in fact, commit. Viewed collectively, these 16 cases highlight patterns and practices in the administration of justice at the state and federal levels that violate constitutionally and internationally protected rights. Abuses that led to rights violations included the following...."

"Defense attorneys routinely failed to provide their clients with competent legal counsel...."

"Prosecutors and police routinely engaged in misconduct during investigations and trials...."

"Racial bias fueled the actions of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges...."

"State and federal appellate courts failed to intervene in cases with compelling evidence of innocence and evidence of rights violations...." 1

On 2005-JUL-12, the Codes Committee of the New York State Assembly rejected a bill to reinstate the death penalty. Legislation regulating executions had previously been declared unconstitutional by the state courts. At that time, Shari Silberstein, Co-Director of the Quixote Center said: "New York is not alone. There is a growing consensus in this country that as a matter of policy, the death penalty is an expensive failure....For the past five years, the conversation around the death penalty has expanded to include questions of innocence, fairness, and alternatives. It is increasingly clear that the very real risk of executing the innocent, not to mention the expense and effort required to even try and improve the system, has led people to turn away from the death penalty in recent years." 3

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Amnesty International program opposing the death penalty:

From the Amnesty International (AI) web site:

"Amnesty International unconditionally opposes the death penalty under all circumstances. Every death sentence is an affront to human dignity: the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Each execution is a violation of the most fundamental human right: the right to life itself. The undeniable fact that the death penalty is sometimes inflicted upon those innocent of the crime for which they were condemned only reinforces the other conclusive arguments against its use." 4

AI cites a number of countries who have executed persons later determined to be innocent, or who have released prisoners from death row after having determined their innocence. These include Belize, China, Japan, Malawi, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Trinidad, Tobago, Turkey, UK, and Uzbekistan.

AI lists some of the factors that result in innocent people being sentenced to be executed:

"While there are a multitude of factors contributing to mistaken death sentences in the USA, a deadly pattern emerges from the cases of individuals who were later exonerated. These recurring factors include the inadequate performance of defence [sic] attorneys and misconduct by prosecuting authorities eager to gain a conviction at any cost. Juries often rely on false evidence, including the perjured testimony of jail-house informants who bargain for leniency in return for their incriminating statements." 4

Other factors are:

bullet Defendants who are unable to afford competent legal representation.
bullet Inexperience on the part of defense attorneys.
bullet Lack of funding and lack of resources for the defense.
bullet Public pressure for the police to arrest someone -- anyone -- after heinous crimes are committed.
bullet Coerced confessions.
bullet Suppression of evidence that indicates that the defendant is innocent.
bullet False testimony against the defendant.
bullet Limiting the appeals process: "only to ensure that all rules and judicial safeguards were observed. Contrary to popular belief, US appeal courts are rarely allowed to reconsider the guilt or innocence of condemned prisoners."
bullet Jurors who are "death-qualified" -- previously determined to not be opposed to the death penalty -- have been found more likely to believe the prosecution's case.
bullet Racial prejudice against the defendant.
bullet Refusal by higher courts to consider new evidence which indicate or prove that the defendant is innocent. "More than 30 US states which impose death sentences mandate time limits on the admissibility of new exonerating evidence following a conviction. In more than a dozen states, the time allowed is 30 days or less." Proof of innocence is no defense in these states.
bullet Political pressure on clemency boards to never recommend mercy in capital cases.
bullet Defunding in 1995 of Post-Conviction Defender Organizations (PCDOs). These are groups set up to help death row inmates prove their innocence. Most groups were unable to continue after their funding was cancelled. 4

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Subcommittee report of the House Judiciary Committee:

In 1993, the Congressional Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a report which reviewed 48 individuals who had been sentenced to death row and later released because they were shown to be innocent. Their report said, in part:

"Americans are justifiably concerned about the possibility that an innocent person may be executed. Capital punishment in the United States today provides no reliable safeguards against this danger. Errors can and have been made repeatedly in the trial of death penalty cases because of poor representation, racial prejudice, prosecutorial misconduct, or simply the presentation of erroneous evidence. Once convicted, a death row inmate faces serious obstacles in convincing any tribunal that he is innocent." 5

AI suggests that Congress has not moved to fix the system. Rather, they have "...recently taken steps which further erode the protections for innocent defendants facing the penalty of death." 4

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References used:

  1. Claudia Whitman, et al., "Reasonable Doubts: Is the U.S. Executing Innocent People? A Preliminary Report of the Grassroots Investigation Project," Equal Justice USA, 2000-OCT-26, at: Equal Jutice is located at 20 Jay Street #808, Brooklyn NY 11201. Phone: (718) 801-8945.  
  2. Hugo Adam Bedau and Michael L. Radelet, "Miscarriages of Justice in Potentially Capital Cases," Stanford Law Review 1987.
  3. "New York State legislative committee defeats death penalty," Equal Justice USA, 2005-APR-12, at: http://www.deathpenalty
  4. "Fatal Flaw: Innocence and the death penalty in the USA," Amnesty International, at:
  5. "Innocence and the Death Penalty: Assessing The Danger of Mistaken Executions," Congressional Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Judiciary Committee, 1993-OCT-21.

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Home > "Hot" religious topics and conflicts > Death Penalty > Executing the innocent > here

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Copyright 2005 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-AUG-07
Latest update: 2010-APR-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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